#RefugeeWeek special: Interview with actor and campaigner Juliet Stevenson

For many on stage, screen and in our borough, Juliet Stevenson needs no introduction. Having starred in a wide range of popular films and creative projects, Juliet is also a long-time Islington resident and campaigner for the rights of refugees and migrants. This #RefugeeWeek we asked Juliet to share her experiences of working with refugees both locally and globally, her role as patron for the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants, and how we can come together to support refugees in line with this year’s theme of ‘Healing.’ 

Juliet Stevenson

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A long-standing passion to support refugees’ rights 

“I’ve been very interested and engaged with refugee issues for many years,” Juliet explains. Juliet, however, first sparked an interest in refugee issues upon playing a key role in Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman. “I had to play a woman who had been detained and tortured under the Pinochet regime in Chile,” she describes, “I realised that I really had no idea how to play somebody who had survived torture daily for several months in detention.” 

“I’ve been very interested and engaged with refugee issues for many years.”

It was then that Juliet reached out to an organisation now known as Freedom from Torture and spoke to refugees from Chile who had been detained under that military regime. “They were extraordinarily generous with their experiences which sort of enabled me to play this part,” she explains. “I was so moved and humbled and blown away by both the work of the Foundation and the clients (i.e. refugees) that I kept a relationship as a supporter, helped them fundraise, and I have done so ever since.”  Since then Juliet has been involved in many local charities and organisations. 

Image credit: Illustration of war refugees available on Canva

Image credit: Illustration of war refugees available on Canva

Unbelievable endurance and courage 

Juliet shares her experiences of volunteering in Calais. “I was so horrified by the conditions in which people were living, so I decided to take some time off work and really commit to doing what I could, like many, many people did,” she explains. Moved by what they had witnessed in the camp, Juliet and her stepson Tomo set up two projects. One was converting a double decker bus into a Women and Children’s Centre, so that women had somewhere dry, warm and clean to go with their children. The other was a powerful film titled ‘Out of our Hands’ on the experiences of refugees. Filming people’s hands rather than faces, the film poignantly captured refugee experiences and struggles, while preserving their dignity and identities.  

“I think people don’t understand very often why people have to leave their countries of origin.” 

Reflecting on this project, Juliet adds, “I think people don’t understand very often why people have to leave their countries of origin. They understand perhaps why Syrians do and now why Ukrainian people do, but many people might not understand why people have to leave Darfur, Iraq or Iran or even Afghanistan or many parts of the world.”  

“Nobody wants to become a refugee. Nobody wants to leave their home, their family their plot of land, their way of life, Nobody. And so, one of my missions really is to try to spread…more understanding and tolerance and compassion”

Juliet describes being blown away by the “unbelievable stories of endurance and courage” of the refugees she has met. “Many things surprised me. I mean, astonishing endurance people’s capacity to survive things I can’t imagine surviving myself. Unspeakable journeys across vast tracts of land, mountains and across trapped water across the channel,” she recollects. Nobody wants to become a refugee. Nobody wants to leave their home, their family their plot of land, their way of life, Nobody. And so, one of my missions is to try to generate more understanding and tolerance and compassion towards those who have to.” 

Supporting refugees in Islington  

Being involved with many local refugee charities and community initiatives, Juliet is a proud Islington resident and reflects on her experiences of the borough. “When I first came to London at 17 in the late 70s, I came to work for social services in Islington. It was a very progressive borough, always working in the interests of the less well-off and working for justice and equality. They were very ahead of their time in working for disabled rights and so on.” One of Juliet’s favourite things about Islington is its “strong sense of community.” She adds, “I’ve lived in the borough for 27 years and I really, really love it. I love the area. I love the borough I love the huge cultural and ethnic diversity. And that’s my favourite thing about London, really, and I feel Islington is a fantastic celebration of that.”  

“I think people function often at their best in communities and was just blown away by what the centre was doing in terms of supporting people in so many ways”

Acknowledging the stark inequality in the borough and the value of community, Juliet was involved in setting up ‘Highgate has Heart’ in 2016, a local community group that came together to fundraise, advocate, and raise awareness about important issues. “I think people are very motivated to come together for change, progress and to give back. There’s a very strong, strong sense of community around where I live, and it absolutely is what brings heart to living in this massive city, which could be very heartless,” she says.   

As well as her work with Safe Passage and Freedom from Torture, Juliet is the proud patron of the Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants. She describes the wide range of activities and support on offer from creating writing and English classes to legal advice and casework. I love community. I think people function often at their best in communities and was just blown away by what the centre was doing in terms of supporting people in so many ways. There was a wonderful creative writing classes that I observed, with teachers Sita and Jane doing incredible work with people for whom English is maybe a third or fourth language, but they were able to express themselves through writing with extraordinary results.” Juliet adds, “The most important thing is it offers a sort of community to people, a home really. The centre enjoys a lot of support locally but there’s always more we can do.”  

I’ve got Ukrainian family living in my house now since the beginning of March. I thought it’d be much better for this family coming to live in our house to have a sense of community around them. 

Highgate has Heart continued its work and was particularly reignited following the Ukraine crisis. “I’ve got Ukrainian family living in my house now since the beginning of March. I thought it’d be much better for this family coming to live in our house to have a sense of community around them.”  Juliet goes on to explain how during “the first week the doorbell never stopped ringing with offers,” from residents willing to support, from teaching English to the young 6-year-old girl to bringing toys, clothing and food. Juliet adds, “it was important to offer sanctuary – people needing home very, very quickly. I think, for me, it’s just common sense. We feel very lucky to host them. The mum is a wonderful artist and website designer. Her little girl is 6. We’ve got her into a great local primary school who’ve made her very welcome. She’s got friends now, she’s learning English, and she’s just settled in brilliantly.” 

Image credit: Islington Centre for Refugees & Migrants

#RefugeeWeek: Healing  

Reflecting on the theme of Healing for this year’s #RefugeeWeek, Juliet says that one of the biggest challenges for some is a “complete loss of identity.” This includes family, job, career, community, network and possessions. “All those things give us roots on this planet. And I think that is one of the most brutal experiences of being a refugee…It’s unbelievably lonely and a source of a lot of mental health issues. So, I think healing, insofar as that’s possible, has a lot to do with re-finding or redefining your identity in your host country and receiving as much support to do that as possible.” 

“I think it’s very important that those of us who are hosting refugees consider that it’s not about telling people how and what to do. It’s also about hearing and listening. One of the best things we can is sit down and listen.”

Amplifying and listening to the experiences of refugees and encouraging people to tell their own stories is extremely important: “people speak so eloquently when they’re able to, when they have a confidence, and they don’t feel threatened by speaking. It’s so important that people tell their own stories.” Juliet mentions “brutal Home Office policies” such as the current Rwanda deportation proposal. “It’s in our own interest to welcome people here who have been so driven to come, have endured so much and have such extraordinary strength of character despite the trauma that they’ve experienced.” 

Speaking on her own experience, Juliet adds, “One of the things we do a lot at home is I ask my Ukrainian mum lots of questions about her life back in Kiev. We look at pictures of her family, her parents, her grandparents, so that I can learn as much as possible about Kiev and Ukraine. Food is another great way to bring people together: “Food make strong connections and things like food is so tied up with cultural identity as well”, she adds.  

The Big Bike Appeal

Continuing the support and awareness of refugees in Islington, together with Yes Outdoors we have launched the Big Bike Appeal to provide refurbished bikes to refugees settling in Islington. 

“The bicycle initiative is brilliant because we know that some people can’t afford to travel around town or cannot afford public transport, so I think as long as people are also learning road safety, the bicycle initiative is great. I would urge people look in your cellars, your garages, and your sheds. If you’ve got any bicycles that you or your family don’t need anymore, get them out and consider donating them,” says Juliet. 

To find out more about the #BigBikeAppeal and find all the related links, please visit our news page

Join the conversation this #RefugeeWeek, #RefugeeWeek2022, #WorldRefugeeWeek